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Letter dated 11 April 2004 sent to the China Daily

The Legitimacy of Central Reclamation Phase III

Central Reclamation Phase III is a major infrastructure project designed, approved and funded to meet Hong Kong's essential transport needs. It provides land for an underground Central-Wan Chai Bypass (CWB) which will be an important trunk road on the northern shore of the Hong Kong Island and is justified to complete the strategic road network throughout the territory. CRIII also seeks to meet the more imminent need for other essential surface road (known as Road P2 network) to relieve traffic congestion in Central, particularly in the vicinity of the Hong Kong Station of the Airport Railway and the International Financial Centre Phases I and II. Without these essential transport infrastructure, risks of gridlock in Central and Wan Chai will be great, giving rise to considerable social, economic and environmental consequences.

The Government shares the community's aspirations to protect and preserve the Victoria Harbour which is a special natural heritage of Hong Kong. The Government ensures that any reclamation will satisfy the presumption against reclamation under the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance with the interpretation as laid down by the Court of Final Appeal. As determined by the CFA Judges, that presumption can be rebutted by establishing an overriding public need for reclamation and the extent of reclamation is the minimum required.

CRIII has gone through a due process of scrutiny supported by extensive public consultations. This had lasted for five years before works commenced in February 2003. Even some most vocal critics of the project are not entirely against the need for some reclamation to accommodate the roads. The question is more the extent of the reclamation. Indeed, as a result of extensive public consultations and objections received during the process of taking forward the project, the area of reclamation has been reduced by almost fifty percent, from 32 hectares to 18 hectares.

The CFA judgment said that "with any reclamation proposal, substantial public funds and third parties rights would be involved. It is of obvious importance and in the interests of good public administration that all concerned should know where they stand as soon as possible so that the earliest opportunity for any challenge should be promptly taken." In the case of CRIII, time has passed.

Some key dates concerning CRIII will help illustrate the above:

  • CRIII with an original proposed reclamation of 32 hectares was announced in 1998;
  • In light of public concerns about the extent of reclamation, engineering studies and extensive consultations were carried out in 1999 to identify the minimum option and to secure public acceptance;
  • The minimum reclamation under CRIII amounting to 18 hectares was approved by CE in C on February 22, 2000;
  • Funding for the detailed design and tender preparation of CRIII was approved by LegCo on April 28, 2000;
  • Environmental Impact Assessment report on CRIII was approved by the Director of Environmental Protection on advice of the Advisory Council on the Environment on August 31, 2001;
  • CRIII's reclamation and roadworks were authorized by CE in C under the Foreshore and Sea-bed (Reclamation) Ordinance and Road (Works, Use and Compensation) Ordinance respectively on December 18, 2001;
  • Funding for construction of CRIII was approved by LegCo on June 21, 2002;
  • Tenders for CRIII were invited on August 12, 2002 and contract was awarded on February 10, 2003.

It should therefore be clear that the award of the CRIII contract followed its own programme. There is no question of the government "rushing" or "prematurely" entering into a binding contract in order to present a "fait accompli" on the Central Reclamation while the Society for Protection of The Harbour was contemplating a legal challenge.

More importantly, the judicial proceedings initiated in the early part of 2003 by the Society were concerning the draft Wan Chai Reclamation. It was not until September 2003, half a year after commencement of CRIII works, that the Society sought to apply for judicial review on the Central Reclamation.

In commenting on the Society's argument that the government rushed to conclude contracts for CRIII works and therefore has only itself to blame for any financial ramifications, Judge Hartmann in his judgment handed down on March 9, 2004 said that "the executive cannot always bow to the pressure of threatened litigation and it is always a question of policy whether an approved plan should be fulfilled without delay or whether delay is prudent."

Unless and until set aside by the court, the Central OZP and the CRIII works are lawful. As Judge Hartmann puts it, "our law makers have given to the Chief Executive in Council clear executive jurisdiction in respect of town planning matters". The Central OZP is an approved Plan. The High Court judgment has reconfirmed that the power to revoke an approved plan or to seek amendment rests entirely with the CE in C. It also ruled that in determining there was no need to revoke or amend the approved Central Plan taking all factors into account, the CE in C was exercising his power under section 12 of the Town Planning Ordinance and was acting lawfully and reasonably. With a lawful plan, it is clearly in the interest of good administration to seek to implement it without delay.

It has been argued that CRIII and the Wan Chai Phase II are one project and the former should not proceed when the latter is subject to review. In reality, CRIII and Wan Chai II are the final phases of the Central and Wan Chai Reclamation scheme that comprises five phases. Planning exercise takes time and project implementation proceeds in phases. Much of CRIII is a continuation of CRI. CRIII should therefore proceed without further delay. Viewed on its own, CRIII is needed not only for the Central-Wan Chai Bypass but also the P2 roads connecting CRI and CRII and an Extended Overrun Tunnel to ensure safe operation of the Airport Express Line and the Tung Chung Line at their design capacity.

We should also not lose sight of the other benefits of CRIII although these are not the reason for reclamation. The Central-Wan Chai Bypass is built underground. This provides an opportunity for the Town Planning Board to draw up use of the reclaimed land to promote "the health, safety, convenience and general welfare of the community." Based on the approved Central OZP, half of the reclaimed land (i.e. 9 hectares) is zoned for open space to create a traffic-free waterfront promenade in the heart of our Central Business District for the enjoyment of the community. Good urban design concepts are fully incorporated into the land use. These include stringent height restrictions, stepped building height down to the waterfront, pedestrian walkways well connected, an attractive waterfront with low-rise waterfront related commercial and leisure facilities such as festival markets, cafes, restaurants and retail shops, etc. There is no worry of high-rise high density commercial developments on the reclaimed land with restrictions imposed in the statutory plan.

Hong Kong has a proud record of delivering major infrastructure to meet our social, economic and environmental needs. It is only prudent and responsible that with a lawful plan and a binding contract, good administration should seek to avoid delay. Now is the time to move on with CRIII.

Mrs Carrie Lam
Permanent Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands (Planning and Lands)